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Katrina + 3 Years: The 'Nigga' in New Orleans

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Leonce Gaiter       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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Three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered the homes of hundreds thousands of Louisianans, too many residents are still unable to afford to rebuild their homes or find an affordable place to rent, according to a new housing report by the national research and advocacy group PolicyLink.

The new report, "A Long Way Home: The State of Housing Recovery in Louisiana 2008," shows that while some progress has been made during the past year, thousands of residents who want to return home are facing a critical rental housing shortage, inadequate rebuilding grants and a recovery plagued by red tape and ever-changing rules.

- Wall Street Journal MarketWatch, 8/21/08

If the history of the Katrina recovery were written today, it would be a tragedy. Far too little progress has been made despite the remarkable effort and ingenuity of the people of the region who are fighting to restore their homes and their lives.

- Raymond C. Offenheiser, President, Oxfam America

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A version of the following appeared in Archipelago magazine less than one year after Hurricane Katrina.  

Three years after Katrina… :

It was more than obvious. Large portions of New Orleans would never be rebuilt. Soon after Katrina, a reporter and I agreed on this. Too many of the people in the most devastated areas were poor. Too many were black. And, in the context of American history, those are hereditary crimes with recurrent sentences.

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“You’re nothing if you’re poor and black,” my New Orleans-reared mother used to say. Clawing her way to a comfortable middle-class with her Louisana-bred husband, this was her desperate way of goading me into non-acceptance—non-acceptance of the 60s and 70s status quo of the all-black school, the segregated neighborhood, the “comfort zone” of black life as it stood back then.  It was her warning that, at worst, the majority has contempt for you, and at best, is simply indifferent to you, and your sufferings or hardships.  ‘You’re on your own,’ she was saying.  ‘There is no country behind you, no countrymen support you, no government promotes your interest.’

You’re on your own.

Throughout history, blacks got the slops.  Slaves ate what was left after the white folks took the best.  Blacks were allowed to live only where white folks didn’t want to.  Thus, black neighborhoods are often the most vulnerable to natural, and man made disaster.  When I lived in the then middle-class Ponchartrain Park area of New Orleans, the streets regularly flooded during the summer heavy rains.  Six inches of water for children to play in.  It receded an hour or so later.  To me, it was just one of many freakish novelties that marked this place malevolent, foreign, as somehow antithetical to my well-being.  Though young, I found its climate insufferable, its insects primordial, its flora sinister, its racism pernicious.  New Orleans seemed a place where I could never have the best.  It seemed a place where folks like me were limited to what the white folks let us have.  My antipathy was so strong it has lasted for decades.  Once I had a choice in the matter, I never returned to New Orleans.  Instead of “home”—the place that made my mother and father and all of my relatives what they were—New Orleans was a threat—a negative object lesson in acceptance.  With large black swaths of the city largely decimated, it’s now much easier to articulate why.

Black New Orleanians rightly take a lot of pride in having built communities from the shards and pieces they were allowed in this deep south former slave port.  The community ties date back generations, with family homes and land regarded reverentially.  In many cases, it was the only thing of value people had.  Holding onto it was everything.

That’s why the prospect of losing homes and land is so devastating in New Orleans’ poor black communities.  It was the only thing so many had.  They had sacrificed, fought, scraped and struggled for generations to own, and now… it’s gone.  It’s particularly galling that it’s gone because of incompetence, indifference and inaction.  But that’s what my mother warned me about.  It’s the warning of which black New Orleanians, and black Americans in general, take too little heed.

 Pride in accomplishment is natural, but don’t dare ignore that the accomplishment is built on a foundation of impoverishment and limits imposed from without.  Yes, blacks built a community, but we built in a disaster zone—because that’s the only place in New Orleans where we were allowed to build.

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The Brown University professor of sociology John R. Logan found that damaged areas of New Orleans were 75% black.  Undamaged areas were 46% black.  Yes, blacks lived in the most dangerous, flood-prone areas.  According the The Boston Globe, the Logan study “found that if New Orleans’ returning population was limited to the neighborhoods undamaged by Katrina, about half the white population would not return and 80% of its black population would not.”

History dictated that 80% of New Orleans black population rely on a government of the majority to protect them from looming disaster.  Predictably, the federal government shirked that responsibility. Prior to Katrina, the Bush administration was warned that a devastating hurricane striking New Orleans was among the most likely US disaster scenarios.  However, subsequent to that warning, the administration CUT New Orleans flood control funding by 44%.  According to the Washington Post, “…President Bush's lofty promises to rebuild the Gulf Coast have been frustrated by bureaucratic failures and competing priorities...”  From the federal government, Louisiana will get 6.2 billion dollars to help an estimated 200,000 homeowners.  Mississippi will receive 5 billion to help an estimated 50,000.   And that is for New Orleans homeowners—the comparatively affluent ones.  The contempt tinged with hatred for the black and poorest was brutally crystallized in a statement from Rep. Richard H. Baker, 10-term Republican from Baton Rouge. “ We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,” he was overheard telling lobbyists, “We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

 “You’re on your own,” my New Orleans-reared mother insisted.

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Leonce Gaiter's literary thriller, "In the Company of Educated Men," was published by Astor + Blue Editions in 2014. His historical novel, "I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang" was published September 2011. His (more...)

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